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Teaching an Old Dog EU Tricks

By Elizabeth Pond

Those Europeans who fear a diminished future as they stare at the euro crisis and Washington's pivot to Asia need only turn to the Serbs for reassurance of their worth.

Yes, the Serbs. In particular, the ultranationalist Serbs who were once fans of strongman Slobodan Milosevic as his forces conquered a third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia in the 1990s Balkan wars. The ones who berated NATO for intervening to stop Serbian security units from expelling more than 60 percent of Kosovo's majority Albanians from their homes in 1999 and blamed "anti-Serb"America and Europe when that century-old Serbian province declared independence nine years later. The ones who lionized General Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander at the Srebrenica massacre, and proudly swore they would never compromise on Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo just to get more handouts from the European Union. 

It's Serbs from this end of the political spectrum who defeated the more moderate Democratic Party in last spring's election and formed the new government in Belgrade. It's Ivica Dacic—who started his career as Milosevic's spokesman and heads the Socialist Party that Milosevic founded—who is now Premier. It's Aleksandar Vucic—who was Milosevic's hatchet man for the media—who is First Deputy Premier.

And it is Dacic and Vucic who now put top priority on getting a set date to begin talks on joining the European Union. In order to smooth the way, Dacic has just agreed in direct talks with Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton to implement "integrated border management" at "all their common crossing points." After a decade in which the Serb-majority northern tip of Kosovo has been a lawless haven for smugglers, Serbian and Kosovo officials will man common customs posts alongside representatives of the European Union's "EULEX" rule-of-law mission in Kosovo. The first two posts will open on Monday, the next two by the end of December. Belgrade and Pristina will exchange "liaison" officers—no, they won't (yet) be called ambassadors—under the aegis of the EU. The Serb-Kosovo dialogue will begin discussing more overtly political issues in mid-January.

The EU, it seems, still possesses enough of that old soft power attraction to induce painful democratic transformations in would-be members. This is a relief after long years in which Serbs flaunted their immunity to the lure of Brussels and its democratic preconditions for starting accession talks, set fire to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, and manned armed barricades at official Serbia-Kosovo crossing points. Today, patriotic defiance of the West and the EU is suddenly out of fashion in Serbia. Realism is in—in calling on EU help to overcome Serbia's economic slump of the past twenty years, finally rejecting Russia as a potential alternate sponsor to the EU, and trying to catch up with rival, richer Croatia, which will join the EU next year.

To be sure, there is still a long way to go before the Serbia-Kosovo "normalization" that the EU posits as the prerequisite for setting a first date for Belgrade's desired accession negotiations. Those customs officers at the crossings will at first eschew anything that might smack of actually collecting customs duties, and will only register the trucks that pass by. The roaring traffic of smugglers' lorries on all the Serb-built asphalt bypasses of the official crossing points will eventually have to be shut down. Most important, Belgrade will eventually have to disband the "parallel" security networks it has maintained in northern Kosovo for the past twenty years.

Yet the timid, conciliatory steps so far are already more forthcoming than any concessions the moderate Serb governments of the past eight years were able to muster (given the ultranationalists' branding of every tiny increment in civil discourse with Kosovo as treason). By starting down this unaccustomed road of "technical" accommodation of Pristina's needs, the ruling ex-ultranationalists are committing themselves to carrying out the EU's basic political and institutional prerequisites on the way to membership. Significantly, Vucic has even launched a domestic anti-corruption campaign that might just go beyond prosecuting political adversaries and root out the security-criminal nexus that has survived Milosevic both in Serbia and in northern Kosovo.

Besides, only reformed ultranationalists in Belgrade have the moral clout to persuade the very unreformed ultranationalist Serbs in northern Kosovo to lay down their guns, engage politically in independent Kosovo (as their compatriots in central and southern Kosovo routinely do), and accept the generous minority rights and local self-rule guaranteed in the Kosovo constitution. As Premier Dacic argued explicitly before heading to meet disgruntled Serbs from northern Kosovo on Thursday, "no one has the moral right" to accuse him of treason, because his Socialist Party previously went to war in Kosovo.

More practically, he added, "Let's not toy with the fate of Serbs from Kosovo. I urge everyone not to start battles we cannot win. … We are balancing between the defense of the people in Kosovo and our continued European path." This is a plea that presumably resonates with his many unemployed constituents inside Serbia who want jobs instead of constant patriotic mobilization.

Dacic's and Vucic's newfound pragmatism on the issue of Kosovo is all the more striking for coming in the wake of the Hague Tribunal's surprise acquittals in recent weeks of the senior Croatian and Kosovo generals charged with war crimes against Serbs in the 1990s. This isolates the Serbs, as Vucic told the UN General Assembly this week, as the only Balkan ethnicity that still has senior military officers serving jail sentences for war crimes. In any previous era, this state of affairs would have triggered mass organized protests rather than the current spontaneous, localized demonstrations.

The Serb leaders' pragmatism is perhaps even more striking for not wilting in the face of the Serbian Orthodox Church's stern appeals not to "renounce" Kosovo and thereby to perpetuate "our difficult and hard lives we have lived in the past 500 years,” as Patriarch Irinej put it.

An EU whose soft example of a peaceful continent can nudge Europe's pioneers of 19th-century blood-and-soil nationalism to evolve this far toward a more 21st-century mindset probably does have a future after all.

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Endgame in the Balkans.

Photo courtesy of European External Action Service.

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